Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs), also called Parent Associations (PAs), have the power to make your child’s school a better place.
Whether you want to raise money to counter budget cuts, to increase communication between families and administrators, or to advocate for certain education policies in your district, a parent-run organization can be a great way to get these and other goals accomplished.
If such an organization doesn’t exist at your child’s school, don’t worry! With the right guidance, getting started isn’t as hard as you may think. Here are the first steps you should take if you want to create a PTO or PA.
The first, and most obvious, step is to get a small number of parents and teachers together to decide on goals for your new organization. This meeting should end with a shared vision of what you would like to accomplish for your school. One parent who recently served on her school’s newly-formed PTO offered some words of advice: “It can be very time-consuming. Be sure that you are prepared for regular meetings, calls, and homework. There can be a lot of homework." A committed group of people is essential.
Those of you familiar with starting new entities or joining existing ones know that having a clear vision and accompanying mission statement make the decision-making process more streamlined. When you have a clearly articulated mission, you can check newly proposed projects against it to be sure they align.
A quick search of PTO mission statements from coast to coast turns up some similar language. For example, PTOs from Mast Way Elementary School or Glenwood Intermediate School use versions of the following statement:
“[Our mission]...is to promote and encourage communication between parents, teachers, administration, and the community. The PTO also sponsors and organizes fundraising and school events, which deepen our community spirit and enrich our children's educational, social, and developmental experiences."
A mission statement can be this broad or more tailored to your school’s specific needs.
Before you forge ahead with excited parents and teachers, it’s helpful to include your school’s administration. One administrator I interviewed said, “We absolutely love the enthusiasm that our parents have, and we are so grateful that they have listened to our thoughts on the role of the PTO." Communication is a two-way street. In your enthusiasm, don’t forget to listen; nine times out of 10, there will be projects and ideas that you and school leaders agree to tackle together. Remember that this is a partnership.
When you brainstorm a list of activities that your new PTO wants to tackle, your first activity should be to think of ways to ensure that your organization is truly representative of the school community and has as large a membership as possible. To attract more parents, think of new outreach approaches. If you think that fliers and e-mails won’t increase engagement, consider an evening of dessert and coffee (with childcare!) where you enthusiastically discuss ideas and set goals with a broader group. Perhaps a fun lunch for working parents could fit the bill.
Another common piece of advice from the PTO trenches is that, “You absolutely have to have someone who is not afraid of accounting and handling money involved with your PTO. Whether your first step is a fundraiser or acquiring your EIN from the IRS, you need someone who is money-savvy."
Wise planning is a necessity; and the first step on your finance plan should be to get your EIN, or Employer Identification Number. If you plan to do any fundraising, you will need a bank account, which requires an EIN from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Note: An EIN is simply a tax ID number and does not mean that you will be an employer. To apply for an EIN, visit the IRS website. It is free, quick, and relatively easy (especially for your knowledgeable finance person).
If you do plan on fundraising, your next step will be to set attainable goals. While you may not embark on fundraising right away, putting a plan in place will help you achieve the goals you’ve set for the use of these funds, such as sponsoring the school play or adding a new slide to the playground. Be sure to keep your mission in mind when planning to raise money.
Your new PTO will need some structure for its operations, and that structure comes in the form of bylaws. While this is a formal term, you can think of the bylaws as a helpful skeleton for your new PTO. Bylaws should include a meeting schedule, a list of PTO officers, a method for elections, and a process to amend the bylaws. PTO Today provides a sample set of bylaws for guidance.
Once you’ve drafted this document, the bylaws should be officially adopted by the group who has been working to establish the new PTO. Adoption can happen with a 2/3 vote, but will hopefully be unanimous.
As you get ramped up and have more volunteers, you’ll want to think about insurance (for potential accidents if you are not covered by your school), and whether or not to apply to the IRS to become a non-profit organization. You’ll also want to adopt certain rules and policies for your new PTO; these are less formal and easier to amend than the bylaws and should include a meeting schedule, limitations on the use of fundraising proceeds, and a list of committees to carry out your work. Good luck!
Starting a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) is very similar in many ways to starting a Parent Teacher Organization. One significant difference is that local PTA's are members of the state and national PTA's, while PTO’s operate independently. State and national PTA’s provide resources and guidance, including start-up assistance, to help new chapters get off the ground. The first step in setting up a local PTA is to contact your state’s parent PTA to seek their help. And, while PTO's have the option of becoming non-profit organizations and carrying insurance, these steps are required for establishing a PTA. Visit the PTA website for additional information.
Mast Way PTO Mission Statement. Retrieved March 16, 2015, from Mast Way Elementary School
GWIS News. Retrieved March 16, 2015, from Glenwood Intermediate School